I couldn’t wait to try Ford Fry’s new Tex-Mex restaurant, Little Rey, but I admit I was nervous. Many decades ago, I landed in Houston, Texas, as the editor of a big glossy magazine. The last thing I looked forward to there was the food. Back then, when most Americans referred to Mexican food, they really meant Tex-Mex, and the closest we got to that was Taco Bell. God did not give me a cast-iron stomach, so the piles of raw onions, greasy ground beef, beans, lettuce, orange cheese, and nose-bleeding chili powder, all piled into stale hard shells, made me instantly ill. Imagine my horror when my new Houston friends made things worse by introducing me to the monstrous Frito Pie. They dumped all of the above ingredients into a bag of Fritos and handed me a spoon to eat the crap directly from the bag. Fancy versions were served in a bowl.
With time, I discovered that “true” Mexican cooking is considerably different from Tex-Mex. But I also discovered a lot of brilliant, cliché-busting varieties and cousins of Tex-Mex, especially so-called Southwestern cuisine (like that at Taqueria del Sol). One of my favorite Houston spots, not extraordinary but always reliable, was Ninfa’s. It’s this restaurant that came instantly to mind when I first saw the words “al carbon” on the exterior walls of Little Rey (meaning “Little King”). Ninfa’s was credited with originating tacos al carbon, whose meats – soon to be called fajitas – were grilled over smoky wood and spilled into tortillas.
Fry already has two Tex-Mex restaurants in operation — The El Felix and Superica. Like all of his other restaurants, they are very popular and the food is reliable. I visited El Rey twice during the first 10 days of its operation. The building was most recently a late-night bar that was closed because the go-go-girls were having to pay to work there. The re-do is amazing. The interior is wide open and full of funny art, including a portrait of a chicken lecturing Felix the Cat. The front patio offers a gorgeous view of Tokyo Valentino. The rear entryway is lettered with “COMIDA DEL CIELO.” That means “food from heaven.” Is it?
Not yet. The place, according to everything I read, has been overwhelmed with huge crowds. But that wasn’t the case when I visited for a late lunch and dinner around 9 on a Saturday night. You place your order at a counter, fetch your plastic utensils, find a seat, and wait to hear your name called. The big deal here is the chicken al carbon. You order a whole or a half chicken that’s been grilled and smoked over oak and mesquite. It comes with tortillas, smoked onions and jalapenos, ranch beans, and cilantro-lime rice. I was also given a bag of chips and some red and green salsas. I have no idea if this was a gift or a screw-up in the kitchen.
The chicken is moist with oily, browned skin. You pluck the flesh and roll it into tortillas if you like. There’s no salsa bar —just the basic red and green — so you don’t get to play much with the flavor. This, honestly, is a problem. The chicken is delicious, but the mesquite flavor is relentless. The tiny side dishes add some variety but not enough. My suggestion is to split half a chicken with your dinner date and also order some tacos, a salad, or some queso. Or you can order something like the traditional pozole — a broth tinged with guajillo chiles, afloat with the chicken, hominy, cabbage, and cilantro.
The restaurant offers six tacos on the lunch/dinner menu. Two feature al carbon meats – the chicken and steak. They come with smoked onions, but you can add jalapenos and queso. Three traditional tacos include carne asada, brisket, and chopped chicken. My favorite by far is the sixth, the Oaxaca, which includes poblanos, mushrooms, and salsa verde. The tortilla is stiff with melted cheese. In all honesty, though, I’ve never seen a kitchen have such difficulty with a taco. I literally had to take it back to the counter both visits to get all the ingredients included.
I’ve not tried the restaurant’s breakfast tacos or huevos rancheros. You may want to wait a few weeks before visiting Little Rey. If you go sooner, you’ll likely have to drink two or three margaritas while you wait. That could get messy but the food will taste even better.
1878 Piedmont Ave. NE, Atlanta, GA